Ownership of Space

We have seen that the Appalachian region was peculiar in this: that good bottom lands were few and far between. So our mountain farmers were cut off more from the world and from each other, were thrown still more upon their individual resources, than other pioneers. By compulsion their self-reliance was more complete; hence their independence grew more haughty, their individualism more intense. And these traits, exaggerated as they were by force of environment, remain unweakened among their descendants to the present day.

Here, then, is a key to much that is puzzling in highland character. In the beginning isolation was forced upon the mountaineers; they accepted it as inevitable and bore it with stoical fortitude until in time they came to love solitude for its own sake and to find compensations in it for lack of society.

Says a native writer, Miss Emma Miles, in a clever and illuminating book on The Spirit of the Mountains: “We who live so far apart that we rarely see more of one another than the blue smoke of each other’s chimneys are never at ease without the feel of the forest on every side—room to breathe, to expand, to develop, as well as to hunt and to wander at will. The nature of the mountaineer demands that he have solitude for the unhampered growth of his personality, wing-room for his eagle heart.”

Such feeling, such longing, most of us have experienced in passing moods; but in the highlander it is a permanent state of mind, sustaining him from the cradle to the grave. To enjoy freedom and air and elbow-room he cheerfully puts aside all that society can offer, and stints himself and bears adversity with a calm and steadfast soul. To be free, unbeholden, lord of himself and his surroundings—that is the wine of life to a mountaineer.

Such a man cannot stand it to be bossed around. If he works for another, it must be on a footing of equality. Poverty may oblige him to take a turn on some “public works” (by which he means any job where many men work together, such as lumbering or railroad building), but he must be handled with more respect than is shown common laborers elsewhere. At a sharp order or a curse from the foreman he will flare back: “That’s enough out o’ you!” and immediately he will drop his tools. Generally he will stay on a job just long enough to earn money for immediate needs; then back to the farm he goes.

Bear in mind that in the mountains every person is accorded the consideration that his own qualities entitle him to, and no whit more. It has always been so. Our Highlanders have neither memory nor tradition of ever having been herded together, lorded over, persecuted or denied the privileges of free-men. So, even within their clans, there is no servility nor any headship by right of birth. Leaders arise, when needed, only by virtue of acknowledged ability and efficiency. In this respect there is no analogy whatever to the clan system of ancient Scotland, to which the loose social structure of our own highlanders has been compared.

We might expect such fiery individualism to cool gradually as population grew denser; but, oddly enough, crowding only intensifies it in the shy backwoodsman. Neighborliness has not grown in the mountains—it is on the wane. There are to-day fewer log-rollings and house-raisings, fewer husking bees and quilting parties than in former times; and no new social gatherings have taken their place. Our mountain farmer, seeing all arable land taken up, and the free range ever narrowing, has grown jealous and distrustful, resenting the encroachment of too many sharers in what once he felt was his own unfenced domain. And so it has come about that the very quality that is his strength and charm as a man—his staunch individualism—is proving his weakness and reproach as a neighbor and citizen. The virtue of a time out-worn has become the vice of an age new-born. ...

As compensation for the peculiar weakness of their social structure, the Highlanders display an undying devotion to family and kindred. Mountaineers everywhere are passionately attached to their homes. Tear away from his native rock your Switzer, your Tyrolean, your Basque, your Montenegrin, and all alike are stricken with homesickness beyond speech or cure. At the first chance they will return, and thenceforth will cling to their patrimonies, however poor these be.

So, too, our man of the Appalachians.—“I went down into the valley, wunst, and I declar I nigh sultered! ’Pears like there ain’t breath enough to go round, with all them people. And the water don’t do a body no good; an’ you cain’t eat hearty, nor sleep good o’ nights. Course they pay big money down thar; but I’d a heap-sight ruther ketch me a big old ’coon fer his hide. Boys, I did hone fer my dog Fiddler, an’ the times we’d have a-huntin’, and the trout-fishin’, an’ the smell o’ the woods, and nobody bossin’ and jowerin’ at all. I’m a hill-billy, all right, and they needn’t to glory their old flat lands to me!”